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Chapter 1: Wildfire (Book 2 of the Embers on Ice Series)
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Book 2 Embers on Ice
Nothing went the way Boone had planned. Orion’s new man, Matt, had gotten in his way. Boone ground a thumb into his temple, trying to push the growing headache into submission. The car bumped along the winding mountain back roads, snowy trees passing in white blurs. His breath fogged the window as he slumped sideways and rested an arm on the door. The only ways out of this life were in jail or with a bullet in his head.
Matt was a large man who stalked around like every move was part of a mission. He’d slung Boone away from Orion with ease and a defensive gleam in his silver eyes that made Boone regret not treating Orion better.
But now, she had the man she deserved. She looked happy to see him.
Gauge, Boone’s boss, had plans for her.
“Why did you tell her?” Eli asked from beside Boone in the backseat of the sedan. He was a young recruit, still processing his guilt and the realization of Gauge’s invisible shackles around his wrists.
Boone fingered the warm metal of a .45 round in his pocket. The four of his crew were past their reporting time. Gauge was not a man to upset more than once.
“You lost it out there,” Eli said low beside him in the backseat. “I heard in over the wire. You told her there were other women. Why? Why not just lie to cover it?”
Boone threw him a glare. He could lie, but not to her.
Eli slid back. He ran a hand through his long dark hair and stared vacantly out the window.
“What happened?” Desmond asked. His slate-blue eyes framed in angry creases darted to Boone in the rearview mirror. A greasy black curl drooped from his slicked-back bangs. “I’ve never seen you botch a pick-up.”
Boone’s failure had everyone on edge. They’d all receive a reprimand if Gauge warranted it. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t want to pick up Orion, because he never wanted her to meet Gauge. The man was a womanizer built from sin and gin and not worth the mint polish on Orion’s toes or a single strand of her fiery hair.
“Some women just—” deserve better. Boone shook his head. He’d cracked, seeing her again. He’d resorted to his old ways of angry intimidation, lies, and romantic apologies. Except nothing had worked this time. Orion was different. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Is she why you drank so much last weekend after we got the assignment?” Eli asked. “Because you dated her once?”
Boone closed his eyes in the warmth of the heater and took in the scent of leather and pine trees. Acting drunk had been a ploy to gain information from other teams at their base. He often pretended to blackout. It uncovered things like Desmond knowing more than he portrayed. Desmond was a kiss-ass and Gauge’s go-to man for coordinating “pick-ups.” Abductions. It’s how Boone learned they weren’t after Orion but someone close to her. He just hadn’t figured out who.
He snorted in disgust, ignoring the question.
“Sorry, I asked—” Eli muttered.
“Blind them with emotion, so they don’t see the trap we’ve laid at their feet,” Gauge had told Desmond while Boone had lain limp on a sofa. Boone couldn’t help but wonder who them referred to. Standing in front of Orion again had brought back a lot of guilt and pain he’d shoved out of his mind.
In the shotgun seat before Boone, Ward opened his laptop. “Boss is going to be pissed you deviated from the plan. You were supposed to covertly grab her, not talk to her and make a scene.”
Fury swelled in Boone’s chest. The parking lot had been mostly empty. Why Gauge wanted the pick-up to happen in such an open space, he didn’t comprehend. Orion was a woman that did what she wanted when. Unless she was helping someone else, she didn’t go anywhere without careful convincing.
“You don’t know Orion.”
Five years, Boone managed to keep a safe distance between them. The lines he’d been running through his head over the last week took a vacation like his brain. Rosy cheeks, ample but fit curves, and petal-soft lips that could just as soon purr a curse as a compliment. He gritted his teeth.
What he’d done to her was unforgivable. But he had his reasons.
Desmond lifted his cell to his ear. “No, we didn’t.”
Gauge’s response was muffled by Desmond’s meaty hand. “Explain.”
Desmond drew in a deep breath and gave Boone a look of warning in the mirror. “Someone else was there.”
“Military,” Boone added. He couldn’t hear what Gauge’s reply was, but it wasn’t pleasant.
“Yes, sir.” Desmond hung up. “He still wants us back to base. Wants to meet with Boone, A.S.A.P.”
“I still don’t understand what he wants with her,” Eli said. “She doesn’t seem like a threat. Every feed we’ve snagged her on, she’s a good person. So, does this mean we’re giving up? Is that why we’re leaving?”
Everyone in the car scoffed but Eli.
“No. We give them time to let their guard down again, think the threat has passed,” Ward said. We’re rescheduling.”
Desmond drummed the steering wheel as he turned off the main road onto gravel sheltered from the snow by ancient trees that towered overhead and cast shadows across their path. White drifts cut into the road like melted marshmallows in patches where trees had lost their needles and sagged like knotted, old men. “Boss still wants you on point, Boone. Better learn to separate personal feelings from your work, or next time he’ll have your head.”
“Shut up, Pretner,” Boone snapped. Desmond had killed his own father to prove his loyalty to Gauge. Boone bared his teeth and looked away. He hated reliving the moment Gauge “rescued” him. Everything Gauge said that first month was either a lie or sarcastic—the polar opposite of Orion. Boone loathed himself for believing all people were inherently good like her. He’d been spoiled in Orion’s presence and wasted a precious gift. But in losing her, he’d kept her safe.
“And you, Squeak,” Desmond said, glaring at Eli in the mirror. “You almost gave away our position to the cops. You’re supposed to distract mission threats, not butter them up, forget to do your job, and then make a mess of things when you remember!”
Eli cowered back.
“Lay off him,” Boone said with force. Desmond started to retaliate, but Boone cut him off. “You know damn well what I can do about it.”
Boone sighed in irritation and reworked his contingency plans. Snow fell like cotton balls outside. Orion would undoubtedly be curled up by the fireplace at her parents’ cabin. Probably with Matt. Jealousy stirred Boone’s stomach into a nauseating soup.
Orion would be ashamed of him if she had any idea what his job had been since he’d left. It countered the symbol of hope she was.
She’d probably punch me in the face. Repeatedly.
Eli tilted toward him. “How did you end up working for Gauge?”
Boone spared Eli a brief glance, hoping the teen could read the pain in his eyes. He couldn’t back out or fail again. But he didn’t want to hurt Orion.
“Don’t bother.” Ward shook his head. “I’m surprised he’s talked this much.”
Boone replayed the moment Orion had sagged in his arms and the single hot breath that had fallen over his shoulder. Her body had felt so good in his arms again that he realized the true danger of what he’d been asked to do, the risk to a woman the world desperately needed—a woman he once called his own.
He shoved the memories of her down so deep his heart throbbed from the force. If he wanted to be free again, he’d have to complete the pick-up. And that meant abducting the one person he never wanted to hurt.
But he’d broken his promise to her once already. Boone rubbed a hand over his aching chest and swallowed his self-disgust. How hard could it be to do it all over again?